The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, 2013
Hunters in the Snow
(Jonathan Cape, Random House UK, 2013)
Selected by Kevin Powers, National Book Award Finalist in 2012 for The Yellow Birds
Daisy Hildyard was born in Yorkshire, England and currently lives in London, where she is studying for a PhD on scientific language. Hunters in the Snow is her first novel.
Interview with Daisy Hildyard by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins: Can you tell me your book's artistic origin story? What image/story/phrase/character did you start with? How long did it take to write? What was the research, composition, and revision process like? What most shocked, confused or surprised you about that process?
Daisy Hildyard: I didn’t intend to write a novel. I started with the four historical stories which are the backbone of the book. They are mysterious true stories, and I wanted to tell them in their proper way, as I see it. I also began to write about the north of England, where the present-day part of the novel is set, which is where I am from.
Another starting point was a news story I’d read about how ice-age bodies and objects are being released from northern Greenland and Siberia as the ice-caps melt. Perfectly preserved artifacts are released, but they deteriorate very quickly once out of the ice. I’m curious about how human history is changing real landscapes. I liked the idea of an archaeologist or a historian, one used to dealing in a measured way with his or her subjects over a length of time, having to cope with an outpouring of weird new material.
The main thing I remember about the actual process of writing was that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had some ideas about what I wanted to write about and how it needed to be, formally, but I didn’t know where I was going with the book or how it would work. I’d never met a single novelist. It’s an unusual business in that respect—in other professions, people might have at least met someone who’s done their job when they start it and so have an idea of how to proceed.
CVW: How about your book's journey to publication: How did your project go from being a Microsoft Word document to being a real life glued-together book? How long did that take? Any helpers along the way? What's been the most shocking/confusing/surprising part of that process?
DH: When I found I had what I thought was part of a book on my computer, I took care to proof-read it carefully, and then I printed it out on good paper and wrote a cover letter to an agent. I found him by Googling, then reading around to see who might suit.
I went up to the post-office on Mare Street in east London where I had to wait in line behind a long queue of people who were I think picking up their dole cheques. In front of me were two men, one black man standing, one white man in a wheelchair, both drunk. They were arguing over who had got in the queue first, and their argument turned into a fairly good-natured exchange of fairly offensive abuse, organized around the themes of race and mobility. Then a woman at the front of the queue defended the man in the wheelchair, and another man waded in in defense of the black man, and then it became necessary for everyone in the queue to give an opinion on the situation and we all had an argument except for one man at the back who just shouted ‘Scum! Scum! Scum! Scum!’ It kept us occupied while we were waiting for the cashier. I’m telling you all this because it made me think that it wasn’t of great importance whether the book got taken up or turned down. I might not have sent it out at all if I’d been more anxious.
My agent picked it up from the slushpile and called back within the week. He told me to come in for a meeting at his office, which was above a plus-size clothes shop—so, he said on the phone, I could pick up some new clothes, if I was large in size, and in need of a new outfit. I told him I thought I was an average size. I wondered whether there had been some mistake. However, the meeting must have gone well because he, and subsequently Jonathan Cape, agreed to organize the process of publication. It’s been simpler than I expected and I feel that little has been expected of me, much to my relief.
CVW: The phrase "emerging writer" always makes me feel like I'm stuck in a birth canal somewhere, so forgive me, but: were high-profile spotlights on emerging writers—like 5 Under 35, the Granta "Best of..." lists,The New Yorker's 20 Under 40, or the defunct Best New American Voices series—on your radar as you were coming of age as a writer? Did they influence or inspire or intimidate or nauseate you? Were there other, now-emerged writers whose career trajectories and/or early work you followed via these venues, and if so which? Or were you looking up to major already-established writers as a young person considering one day writing and publishing a book? Did you have contemporary writer role models, and where did you find these?
DH: I’ve not found a role model though I would like to. I read a lot of fiction of different kinds, from different times. I suppose I do think that good books, whenever they were written, are all alive at the same time, and that the very good ones make something new—so maybe immediate peers don’t come into it so much.
CVW: This year's 5 Under 35 list is composed entirely of women. Care to share your thoughts on how gender affects a writer's encounters with the literary world?
DH: Several people have asked me whether I wanted to change my name for the jacket of the book. I wonder whether this is because the book is not very feminine – the characters are exceptionally unemotional. There’s probably as much in it about, say, mining or dead animals or battles as there is about the feelings of humans. Perhaps it would make more sense if a book about battles wasn’t written by someone named after an adorable little flower.
CVW: What makes you write?
DH: I want to see what’s going on outside myself.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize. She currently teaches at Princeton University.
Pantha du Prince & The Bell Laboratory, “Spectral Split”
(Elements of Light)
There are several churches and at least three cathedrals in the first chapter of Hunters in the Snow. This album was written by Hendrik Weber (Pantha du Prince) after he heard the sound of church bells ringing at slightly different times across a city. The combination of techno and church bells is surprisingly not painful.
Björk, “Cosmogony” (Biophilia)
This chapter describes the destruction of several natural environments and phenomena, from microbes to ice caps. In Biophilia Björk uses sound to describe natural forms, including the moon, a virus, and a crystal. It’s an ambitious and slightly precious project, you have to take it with a sense of humor. This song is scary.
The McIntosh County Shouters, Blow, Gabriel”
(Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia)
The protagonist of this chapter, Olaudah Equiano, was a slave in America. This song comes from a Smithsonian recording of slave shout music from Georgia. I think the music probably post-dates Equiano. He worked on a plantation in Virginia, but later in life he did travel to the coastal swamps of Georgia as a sailor. He boasted about slaying alligators there. I love all the different rhythms creeping about in the background of this song, and how it gets faster.
John Talabot, “Oro y Sangre” (Fin)
There are blood and gold bars (oro y sangre) in this chapter, though Herbert Kitchener, its subject, is not a man who lends himself to music. I associate this track with the time I was writing the book.
Fleetwood Mac, “Little Lies” (Tango in the Night)
Most of the characters in Hunters in the Snow are liars.
About Kevin Powers
Kevin Powers was a National Book Award Finalist in 2012 for The Yellow Birds, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award. He was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. He served in the US Army in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, his first collection of poetry, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in spring 2014.